Amira Hass Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Occupation and Terrorism: Conversation with Amira Hass, Columnist, Haaretz; October 24, 2003, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Israeli Occupation

Let's talk now about the Israeli occupation. You have delineated in an essay in Palestinian Studies the structure of Israeli rule. Explain it to us. What are the byproducts of the strategy that Israel is employing to control the territories?

Let me first say this, that occupation is not necessarily a military occupation. Occupation means when one people and one government -- foreign government -- decides about the future and scope of development, and chances of development, of another people who have not elected this government. I came to understand what occupation is especially in the years of Oslo, the Oslo process, which everybody thought was the peace process. I felt this ongoing and ever-intensifying Israeli policy of control over Palestinian life, even though the army was not directly inside Palestinian populated areas, and even though there were negotiations between Palestinian leaders and the Israeli government.

The two main manifestations of this control, an Israeli persistent and successful attempt to dictate Palestinian future, were: One is the policy of colonization or of settlement, whereby Israel got hold of much more land within Gaza and the West Bank during the Oslo process, and made sure that it created the infrastructure of one state in the one country between the land and the river. It was one infrastructure of very good highways, roads, and connecting settlements, remote settlements, with the Israeli mainland, establishing the same sewage system, water system, electric grid, education system, whatever, of Israel in these remote places in the occupied territories, but an infrastructure for Jews alone.

Now in between this infrastructure, this grid of roads and settlements, you had Palestinian enclaves which were allotted self-rule, but the self-rule was in itself very limited, because you could not expand in your natural territorial reserve because this was taken by the Israelis in the time of the so-called peace process. So this was one.

The second [way] to control Palestinian development was through a new system introduced first in '91, which it was practically a pass system, like the one in Apartheid South Africa, which meant that Palestinians' right to freedom of movement was taken from them, was not respected. In reverse, what had happened between '67 to '91, in spite of the occupation and in spite of all kinds of attacks against Israelis by Palestinians during these previous years, they were granted freedom of movement in the whole country, with certain exceptions; were allowed to move freely, except for a few categories which were chosen by Israel in different times and were granted a very limited freedom of movement.

Now, with the years, the system has perfected. It involves more and more people who need permits, and in smaller and smaller areas. At the beginning, you needed a travel permit from Gaza to Israel, or from Gaza to the West Bank, and vice versa; you now need a permit to go from one city in the West Bank to another city in the West Bank. In certain areas in the West Bank and Gaza, people who live near settlements need permits to go out of their own area in special hours through special gates. So what Israel has been doing during the last twelve years is fragmentizing not only Palestinian territory but the Palestinian population into categories which are characterized by their accessibility to the privilege of freedom of movement.

So what you're saying is that the reality, the actual lives of Palestinians, the actual rules that Israel is imposing, is very different from the general perception. Because all of this was happening at a time when the Oslo accords seemed to [suggest] a peace process moving towards final status in which Palestine would have its own state.

Exactly, exactly. It was a process which guaranteed that the final status would be a very enfeebled Palestinian political entity.

You are also saying that Israel, through the processes of its rule, was creating facts, creating realities, that in a way narrowly limited the future place where the Palestinian state could be.

Exactly.

In your writing, you focus on time and space in this process. You write: "Time and space together make room in one's world, not only materially to accomplish one's tasks and activities, but at the level of the spirit, enabling both the individual in the community to breathe, to develop, to prosper, to create. Space in the occupied territories has been gradually but ruthlessly encroached upon for more than thirty years, as more and more land has been expropriated." It's [the constraint] that you just described.

This is kind of a theoretical statement. Give us an example in everyday life. I read recently a column of yours about children trying to get through the fence. Tell us that story, because when we deal with these issues from afar, or maybe even in Israel, we don't think about their implications for everyday life. But you are addressing that.

Of course; I'll share with you this story of a village, Jabara. It found itself locked between the new-built fence -- Israel's security fence -- and the former green line.

This fence, we should explain, is a fence that Israel is building allegedly for security purposes to separate the Palestinians from the Israelis.

Exactly. To prevent suicide bombers infiltrating into Israel. But the fence is not built along the green line, along the border of '67, but it's built in many places deep into Palestinian territory in order to incorporate Israeli settlements. So it is upgrading the former border and it is actually expropriating land from the Palestinian community, and it locks in people. People in these areas are not allowed to go freely to Israel and cannot go freely to Palestinian territory. In this village are only 300 people, but you have 100 children studying in a nearby village, which is actually the mother village of this little village.

So the students have to go to this other village.

Through the fence.

Through the fence.

The fence has a gate. Sometimes it is opened; sometimes it is not opened. There are [also] teachers teaching in a nearby Palestinian city called Tul Karm. They have to cross from another place through an Israeli checkpoint with soldiers. Sometimes they are let through; sometimes they are not let through.

Now, the villagers need to have a special identity card, additional to what they [already] have, which is the Israeli authorization for them to live where they live -- this is a very new issue -- because they live in this area which was declared a closed area, but only to Palestinians. Jews can go there and live there, but Palestinians cannot. Only those who live there are allowed to stay, provided they get this authorization from the Israeli authorities, Israeli military. A few were already told that they are not allowed to stay there, because some of them were politically active years ago and were in Israeli jails, or so on and so forth. But this is their land, this is their home, this is their family, and now they're actually supposed to leave it.

This is something which happened on a different scale in the Gaza Strip. You have areas in the Gaza Strip where people need to go through fences and through gates twice a day, once a day, sometimes not, sometimes yes. They cannot go with their cars. They're not allowed to bring in things. They cannot market their agricultural products. So many people have been pushed to leave these areas, which are not, by surprise, the only vacant areas in the Gaza Strip, and where some of the big Israeli settlements are situated.

So you see, it's slow. It's a policy in the name of security which forces many people to leave their own land and their own homes if they want to conduct a decent life. If they insist on staying there, they are doomed to impoverished life and pushed into charity life, subjects of charity, and they are not living off their own work.

This combination of the pass system and of the infrastructure to support the Israeli settlements leads to everyday problems, so that for an Israeli to travel on the highways that were built for the Israeli settlements, a trip could take, hypothetically, thirty minutes on a freeway like we have in the Bay Area. But for a Palestinian, who's not entitled to go on these roads, the same trip could take several hours.

Yes, or he could not leave at all. So it is not only the grab, the robbery of land, but you have a robbery of time. Palestinians' time has been robbed in the last thirteen years, because you have to wait for a permit and you don't get it, then you have to wait again. Then you waste time waiting at the checkpoint, then you waste time in submitting another request for a permit, then you waste time trying to go through all kinds of small, dangerous bypass roads. And time is a means of production. Time is so precious for one's development, internal development, community development; and this has been grabbed by the pass system. This very important means of life for every person, not just Palestinian, has been robbed of them. Sometimes I think it's more precious than land, because land you can get back one way or the other. The lost time, you will never get back.

It must lead to a sense of helplessness, of frustration that eats away at the soul.

It's total strangulation. The thing is that people are not that aware of how huge this loss of time is. But I see how people, because of this loss of time and loss of space because they don't have freedom of movement, have lowered their span of expectations. They are not expecting much of their lives because they know that they will be disappointed. You cannot plan to go to see friends. I'm even talking about this before these terrible times of armed clashes between Israelis against Palestinians. People have lowered, so much, their expectations of themselves. They restrict themselves to their narrow surroundings -- family, work, home; family, work, home -- nothing more than that. You don't even go in Gaza now. Even the sea, half of the shore, is blocked for Palestinians. You live 400 meters away from the shore, and you can't reach the sea because there are settlements, and the security of the settlements comes first.

Help us understand how Israel came to adopt this strategy. In your readings I get the sense that initially these were ad hoc decisions with regard to control, that have, in essence, turned into something else.

It's something that I'm always asking myself, to what extent it had been a master plan from the start. I'm still oscillating between the two possibilities, or how much it was taken in '91 as an ad hoc policy, meant especially to contain the first Intifada, because in '91, the first Intifada came to a standstill, in terms of Palestinian measures and an inability to continue a mass uprising, and the Israeli oppression came to a standstill, because at that time, Israel acknowledged its status in humanitarian terms as an occupying power. It had responsibility for the welfare of the civilian population. That's why it could not bomb Palestinians. It could not repress their uprising by dropping one-ton bombs on civilian areas, or by killing every day five, six, seven people.

So it had to confine itself to bureaucratic logistic means, and the pass system was such a bureaucratic means. It tried to contain the Palestinian uprising from spilling over into Israel proper. And also, it allowed Israel much more control, because people were subject to all these extra documents, and then you can control people's movements, and then you contain their activities. But with time, and especially with the Oslo years, they understood how they could control economic life, how they could actually lead this economic war of attrition vis-á-vis the Palestinian authority, and thus force them to accept all kinds of concessions during the talks, during the negotiations, about the interim status and then the final status.

Then, I think, it evolved. I don't know at what stage. I think very early on it evolved as a means to achieve demographic separation. Not geographic separation, not political separation, but demographic separation, which means that Israel is still in control all over the territory where two peoples live, but it is separating the two peoples. It separates, but for the sake of one people, of one demographic group.

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